The title character of the new film Okja is a “super-pig.” In the bizarre, futuristic (though set in modern-day) vision of writer-director Bong Joon-Ho, an American corporation launches a publicity stunt competition to have odd, porcine animals — supposedly discovered in Chile, though that assertion is suspect from the jump — raised by individuals scattered all across the globe. After a decade, the creatures are to be evaluated in a glorified pageant before beings added to the assembly line of food production.
Bong renders his story at a mad careen that resembles an inability to entirely setting on a general narrative approach. At times it operates with a kindhearted empathy that allows the story of a magical creature to unfold without condescension, recalling David Lowery’s surprising and wise remake of Pete’s Dragon. Elsewhere, the film percolates with the energy of unhinged satire, but its most memorable personality thread comes in a depiction of the industrialized process of making sentient beings into consumable meat that accurate and unsparing enough to make the guy who created it convert to pescetarianism.
All that tonal wandering would usually be fatal, but it conforms to Bong’s creative worldview. He’s eagerly committed to making his movies be a little bit of everything at all times, the zing of whiplash-inducing shifts servings to imbue added unpredictability into the proceedings. Think the prevailing sweetness and cartoonish performance of Jake Gyllenhaal (as a wild animal show TV host) found in the first act means Okja might be a good option to click to on Netflix for the kids? Just you wait.
There’s just enough shrewd control to Bong’s freewheeling approach to mostly keep the material in balance. He’s not just throwing ideas at the screen with the hope that enough will stick. He has a pointed intellectual argument to make. He just makes it with the jabbering exuberance of a creator with more ideas than most could reasonably stuff into a single movie. That worked marvelously with his prior film, Snowpiercer, and it arguably works more than it doesn’t in Okja. The level of obvious talent on display is a convincing counterargument to any complaints about wobbly pieces.
Even so, Okja occasionally buckles under its own ambition. Admirable as it is that Bong doesn’t flinch as he carries the film straight into the slaughterhouse, it sometimes feels like he veers into a level of abusiveness to the characters that approaches the sadism of Lars von Trier at his most sadistic. Riding a narrow line between honesty and cruelty gets a little trickier when the vehicle of choice is a unicycle and objects of vastly different masses are being juggled simultaneously. The portions of Okja that are most haunting are also going to be unnavigable for viewers who aren’t made of the sternest of stuff. It’s an open question as to whether that’s truly a creative win.